In July of 1996, I happened to see the Pretty Good Gatsbys play their first ever show, opening up a ska showcase at the Espresso Bar in Worcester. At the time, ska was enjoying its brief and brilliant moment at the forefront of American popular music, and the Espresso Bar—now long since shut down—was a required pass-through for any up and coming band on the scene. And the Gatsbys most definitely were up and coming. When I saw them at that first show, they were just one of six bands—their set couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes long. But their performance blew me away, and, looking around at the crowd, I could tell that I was far from the only one. Within two months, the band was headlining their own Espresso Bar show, within three, the Middle East downstairs. By July of 1997, they had fans across the country and as far-flung as Australia and Japan. They opened for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on the first leg of their North American tour. Unsubstantiated rumor had it that Springsteen was a fan and wanted them to open when he played Foxboro the following summer. And then, on the night of their Halloween headlining show at the Paradise in Boston, the band left hundreds of fans confused and disappointed when they just never showed up. Without a word of notice or explanation, the Pretty Good Gatsbys, the next great Boston band, fell off the face of the Earth.
Of course, no one ever really disappears. Sometimes they quit music and settle down to nine-to-fives working for their local arts and culture magazine. One such person is Luiz Abade, former bassist for the Pretty Good Gatsbys and current graphic and layout designer at the Boston Beat, for which I had been writing for three years when I got the idea to find out what had happened to the Gatsbys after their abrupt departure from the Boston ska scene. It’s a small magazine, and Luiz and I had met before, but I never knew about his past with the Gatsbys. I didn’t even know
he played an instrument.
Luiz, in fact, took up the bass when he was fourteen years old because he “wanted to be in a
band and it looked easier than guitar.” He claims he was never very good and gravitated to punk and ska for that very reason. “I loved the Sex Pistols, and if Sid Vicious could play bass, then,
shit, I could do that good at least,” he tells me when I interview him for this article.
While Luiz is a genial and friendly man around the magazine’s office, as an interview subject he
is taciturn, reticent to discuss his time in the Pretty Good Gatsbys or its demise. “Look,” he says when asked why, “It was a fun time. I don’t deny that. But it was what, fifteen years ago? And besides, I just played in it. It was Alex’s band. You want to know why we broke up, ask him.”
It’s a refrain I have heard before. In preliminary research for the story, I called club owners, members of bands that had played with the Gatsbys, the owner of the local label that released their first and only album. Each time I hit a wall and each time that wall was Alex Jurek.
Something of a child prodigy, Alex Jurek began playing guitar when he was six and formed his first band—consisting of himself on guitar and his brother Adam on drums—when he was nine. He played in a string of bands throughout high school, dabbling in everything from jazz to punk to classic rock covers. When he was nineteen and just out of high school, he —along with Adam, a mainstay in his various bands—formed the Pretty Good Gatsbys. Luiz was a friend of Adam’s
from high school, where they were both entering their senior year. Unfortunately, this friendship did not help me in my search for the band’s erstwhile frontman. Like everyone else, Luiz hasn’t seen Alex in the eleven years since the band’s sudden dissolution. He has, however, kept in touch with Celso Lins, the Gatsbys’s saxophonist.
“I can tell you where to find him,” he informs me, “but I wouldn’t bother going to see him if I were you. He might talk about the band, but I doubt they’ll be happy stories.”
Might he know where Alex went? Or, even better, where he is now?
Luiz laughs when I ask him this. “I doubt it,” he says. “Celso hates Alex. And I don’t think even
his closest friends in the world have any idea where he is.”
When I first arrive at the building where Celso Lins is supposedly performing some session work for a local adult contemporary rock band, I suspect that Luiz is playing a practical joke on me.
The part of Lower Allston that he’s sent me to consists entirely of what looks like old factories
and warehouses. The building that I park in front of, where the recording studio is supposedly housed, is windowless brick. Nonetheless, I knock on the heavy steel door, but the dull thuds
probably can’t be heard inside, especially if there is actually a band recording. So, with a quick prayer that Luiz isn’t screwing with me, I push the door open and enter.
Immediately, I hear muted rock and let out a sigh of relief. The lobby is empty, so I follow the sound into a back hallway, which ends at a door with a window that looks into a large room. The music coming from the room is low-key almost to the point of elevator music, not at all what I would expect from Celso, whose sax playing in the Pretty Good Gatsbys was always explosive, as if he could barely contain the music inside him. When Celso plays the sax solo for this song he looks bored.
When the song finishes, I knock on the window and receive a band’s worth of perplexed stares.
“Hi, I’m here to see Celso,” I say as I poke my head in. “Luiz said you’d be expecting me.”
There’s a full set-up: drum kit, two guitars, upright bass, keyboards, trumpet and Celso’s
saxophone. Thick rugs hang from the walls of the studio, a make-do soundproofing.
The other band members turn to Celso, who shrugs. “First I’ve heard of it. Who’re you?”
After making my introduction, the band members agree to take a ten minute break so I can talk to Celso. I request more time, but they’re on a schedule and don’t much care if I get my story.
“You know,” he begins, “I’m only talking to you because of Luiz. I am very much done with the Gatsbys, and I don’t give a fuck if you find Alex Jurek or not.”
Celso, I quickly learn, is very much not done with the Gatsbys. Even when I try to steer the conversation toward the present, he loops it back around. In response to how he makes his living these days, he tells me that he is still dedicated to music, putting in session work where he can find it, playing a lot of weddings, the occasional short-lived rock project. But only, he reiterates, because of Alex Jurek. To hear Celso tell it, the Pretty Good Gatsbys hadn’t started as Alex’s
band—he appropriated it during a fit of inspiration, by bringing the band a group of songs so powerful that the other members simply stepped aside and let Alex drive. The few songs written by Celso were scrapped. And then Alex abandoned the band without telling anyone where he was going or why. It is easy to see why Celso is still bitter about the band in general and Alex in particular.
Despite all this, Celso proves to be an excellent source for background on the band, both on a personal and professional level. I fill half a dozen pages of my notebook in the short time that we speak, but he makes it clear that after that night I am not welcome to drop in on any more
recording sessions. “If you want to talk again,” he tells me, “I play in a bunch of bands around
Boston. Buy a ticket.” The rest of that particular band is getting antsy to record again, studio time not exactly being cheap, and I am ushered to the door.
Just two weeks before the Pretty Good Gatsbys’ first show, Alex scrapped every one of their songs and replaced them with newly-written ones. While the rest of the band initially complained, they couldn’t help but be affected by his exuberance, his overwhelming confidence that the new songs were better.
“Not just better,” he announced, standing in front of them in the shoddily soundproofed basement of his and Adam’s apartment building. “These are classics. I have never, in my entire
life, felt this inspired.”
The band had met for rehearsal, but before they could begin, Alex broke the news. The other band members listened and noodled with their instruments impatiently, ready to learn these new songs at crash-course speed. They scanned the pages he had given them. Celso, half listening to Alex, idly fingered the notes on his saxophone, hearing the melody in his head. After five notes, Alex’s voice fell away as the music swelled so high Celso felt like it would never break.
Alex hadn’t slept in three days, spending all the time composing the new batch of songs and
transcribing the music. He had heard that if you are awake for more than seventy-two straight
hours, you can be declared legally insane. But the music was coming and he couldn’t stop it. Not
that he had any desire to.
“Shouldn’t we maybe keep a couple of our songs on the set list?” Kim, the keyboardist, suggested. “It would suck to have learned them all for nothing.”
Three of the songs, in fact, had been written by Celso. And he was exceptionally proud of them.
All Celso wanted was to play them in front of an audience made up of people who weren’t his
friends or relatives. But the song Alex had handed him still filled his head. Celso realized he was humming along. And that was just the first song.
“No,” Celso heard himself say. “These are the songs we should play.”
Alex beamed. “We can vote,” he told them. It was unanimous.
The band picked up their instruments and began to play. And in that moment, the Pretty Good Gatsbys were born—and that is one aspect of this story that every member I spoke with agreed upon.
Until I spoke with Celso, everything about the Gatsbys’s disappearance, while sudden, was not
particularly unique. After all, bands break up all the time. Alex was difficult to find, sure, but
when a person doesn’t want to be found, it can’t be that hard to drop off the grid. I’m just a
music journalist. Calling myself an investigative reporter would be a gross overstatement. Tracking down Celso was the most real investigating I had ever done. Most bands, after all, want to be written about, to be exposed to the world at large. But as I unlock the door to my car, I am suddenly hailed by a man who elevates the story of the Pretty Good Gatsbys to an entirely different level.
“Hey!” I hear from behind me. “Writer!”
I make a fist around my key ring, letting a few keys poke through my fingers, just in case, and I turn around.
There is a vast circle of bright light, like I’m looking into a spotlight or the light people approach when they’re dying. I assume at the time that they are car headlights, but incredibly bright. Silhouetted against the light is a funhouse mirror outline of a man, all elongated limbs and neck. He raises both hands, palms out, and the stretchy, knobby fingers remind me of E.T. Then the light fades and blinks off, and a man of normal proportions stands in front of me, smiling disarmingly.
“Whoa, no need for that,” he says, looking at the keys in my hand. He certainly doesn’t look like
someone intending to rob me. Wearing a suit with no tie, the top two buttons of his shirt undone, his hair slicked back, he looks more like a manager, I assume for the band Celso is recording with.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“Boy, I hope so,” he says. “You’re looking for Alex Jurek. So am I.”
My defenses immediately go up, thinking he must be another reporter. But I try to sound casual when I ask if he was also writing a story on the Gatsbys.
“Oh no,” he assures me, “My interest in Alex is purely academic.”
I ask if he is a professor then, or a producer.
“… Not exactly. My occupation isn’t one that can exactly be summed up in one word.”
Does he mind if I ask what his business is with Alex Jurek?
“Let’s just say that he has something that doesn’t belong to him. Something I was supposed to collect from him before his untimely disappearance.”
While the words sound like something from a mafia movie, the guy never breaks his grin. “Good
luck finding him. I followed every lead I could when he first flew the coop, but you know, trail
ran cold, I’m a busy man. Did you know he didn’t even come out of the woodwork for his own brother’s funeral? What kind of man…?” He sighs. “That was unfortunate.”
“Well,” he says, “I should be going.” And he slaps me on the shoulder like we’ve been friends
for years. When he touches me, I black out for a moment. But that isn’t exactly accurate. I don’t
black out in the sense that I cannot remember. When his hand hits my shoulder, my vision cuts
from the street and the man, and instead I am looking at a vast field of stars, more than I’ve ever
seen before. Colors burst from them, connecting stars to each other then snapping away. An instant later, I am back on the dirty street, looking at the man who acts like nothing is wrong.
“You let me know,” he winks as he turns to walk away. “Oh, and she never had much to say to
me, but maybe you should try talking to the girlfriend?”
Neither Luiz nor Celso had told me. I knew who Kim Withers was, but only that she played keyboard in the Pretty Good Gatsbys. No one had bothered to mention that she was Adam’s
longtime girlfriend. Or that Alex was clearly in love with her as well.
What little I could find out painted Kim as following a similar post-band path to Celso. Something about these people kept them involved in music, and Kim made her living as a middle school music teacher, teaching tweens to play the recorder and explaining major scales.
After finding out where she worked, I performed some of the shadier reporting of my career, staking out Kim’s school and following her to her house in Milton. I don’t want to admit this to her, so I wait a few days, then park across the street early in the afternoon to wait for her to come
home. If she asks, I can claim that I got her address from Luiz or possibly Celso. It isn’t the most ethical move I’ve ever made, but by this point the story is what’s most important.
About an hour later, Kim pulls up in a green compact car and parks in the driveway. She gets out and opens the rear door, removing three paper grocery bags, which she attempts to carry all at once, kicking the car door closed behind her. As she fumbles with the bags, I get out of my car and rush over to her.
“Need a hand, miss?” I ask.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she says, turning toward the house and quickening her pace.
“I’m a friend of Luiz’s,” I tell her, “From the Gatsbys. He tells me you might be willing to talk
to me for an article I’m writing.”
She puts the bags on the ground and turns back to face me.
“Luiz told you that, did he?” I nod and she snorts. “I seriously doubt that.”
“Well,” I grin sheepishly, hoping it looks charming, “He maybe didn’t guarantee anything.” As I talk to her, I surreptitiously glance down into the bags. They are indeed filled with groceries, but perched atop the groceries in one bag is a translucent plastic bag from an electronics store filled with stacks of blank CDs. There must be three hundred in there.
She sighs, but also smiles, seeming to loosen up a bit. “Fine,” she says, “Ask away. But out here. I don’t know who you are, I don’t know who you might be working with.” At this, she looks behind me, peering into my car. “You are alone, right?”
“I’m just writing a story. I was a fan of the band, and I’ve always wondered what happened.
Where Alex went. Why he left so suddenly.”
“What you want to know is who Alex is hiding from. Unless you’re trying to find him yourself.”
“I just want to find Alex so that I can get the most complete story possible. I assure you, Miss
Withers, I’m just a journalist.” I do, however, tell her about the man who isn’t exactly a
professor and wonder aloud if she knows him. As I speak, I can swear I hear a drum beat in the background, almost as if it’s inside my head. For a moment, I miss whatever Kim is saying.
Though her walls are back up, Kim does admit to having met the man. Everyone in the band met him at some point, it seems. After the breakup, after Alex’s disappearance, this friendly though mysterious man began showing up, uncannily knowing what concerts, bars, stores, and workplaces to find them at, though none of the band members had ever met him before. He never gave a name. He never told them how he knew Alex.
“I’m pretty sure he came to see us first,” she tells me. “Me and Adam; we were living together. You’ve met the guy, so you know how he is. How he acts friendly, but there’s that… malice under it. The only other time I saw him was at Adam’s funeral.”
“Do you know what it is this guy wants from Alex?”
She frowns, looks toward the door. I can feel the interview slipping away. “Let me ask you a question,” she says. “Where did you get the inspiration for this story?”
“Like I said, I’m a fan of the band. Wondering what happened.”
“No,” she says, “I mean what caused that to happen? What was it that makes anyone inspired? That makes the inspiration something brilliant?”
I’ve learned in my years as a reporter that sometimes it is best to let the subject answer their own questions, and Kim does.
“It’s all the same as anything, isn’t it? Synapses firing in the brain, neurons making the right connections at the right time. If someone understood the brain well enough, don’t you think they
could force inspiration? Control it? And if they could, does that change the brain at all? Make it better? Could the brain even stand it?”I cannot imagine how to answer her, and I don’t try. Finally, she just shakes her head and picks up the grocery bags, telling me she has to go. As she closes the door behind her, she looks back out to make sure I’m leaving. I walk back to my car, considering her words. And then the synapses in my own brain fire in just the right way and I remember the stacks of CDs she had in her bag. And I think, who burns CDs anymore?
I’ve never been much of a lawbreaker—I’ve never even shoplifted—and, truthfully, if a back
window hadn’t been left ajar the next day, I would probably just stand outside Kim’s house, wondering if Alex was inside. Instead, I saunter up to the window like it’s the most natural thing
in the world, pop the screen, and slide headfirst onto an end table, knocking a lamp onto the floor.
The house does indeed seem empty. Tip-toeing, I make my way through the living room and into the kitchen. A door there leads to the basement, and I follow the steps down. I reach the bottom and stop, straining to hear something, to regain the feeling I had when I heard the drumbeat outside. Or, failing that, to hear if Kim comes home so I can run away. I don’t hear anything, but
I feel something, a hum deep inside me, as if a barely perceptible earthquake is registering.
Synapses giving me inspiration, I walk along the back wall, tapping with my fist like I’m looking
for a support beam to nail a picture to, and suddenly I hear a hollow thud. I run my hands over the wall and it turns out not to be a wall at all, but a false front, a door. A gentle push sends it creaking open and I poke my head into a makeshift and chaotic recording studio. The room is about the size of a prison cell, but carpeted. The wall with the door has thick quilts layered on it as sound-proofing, but the other three are filled with shelves holding CDs. Row upon row of them, all homemade, with no discernible order or pattern. Sheets of staff paper are strewn about the floor. Spread across two corners of the room is a set-up for a seven-piece band, including a horn section. In another is an unmade twin bed. And sitting on that bed, wearing headphones and picking out a rhythm on an acoustic guitar, is Alex Jurek.
He looks to be about a week past due for a shower, his long hair in tangles covering one side of his face. He is wearing a Skunk Records t-shirt and baggy jeans and is barefoot, and does not seem to notice that I am in the room until I step directly in front of him and clear my throat. At this he flies into a panic, dropping the guitar and skittering across the bed until his back presses against the wall.
“Who are you?” he demands. “You have to get out of here right now.”
“Alex Jurek, at last,” I say, extending my hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m a big fan.”
The look he gives me is equal parts fear and disgust. “I said you have to leave.”
“I just want to ask you a couple questions. About the Gatsbys. And why you left. What you’ve
been doing all this time.”
Alex picks the guitar up off the floor and places it on a stand by the rest of the instruments. His
back is to me now, his shoulders slumped, and he asks, “How long have you been looking for
“A few weeks,” I say. “When I was here the other day I got a strong feeling you were around.
And then I saw that Kim had all those blank CDs.”
“If people know you’re looking for me, then you’ve met him, haven’t you?” I don’t answer, and
he turns to face me. “You know who I’m talking about.” He lets out a deep sigh, one that sounds
like he’s been holding it in for decades. “If you know where I am, he knows too, but can you
close the door anyway?” As I move to do so, he runs his left hand along a row of CDs, making clicking sounds with his tongue like a metronome and tapping his right hand against his thigh in a
counterpoint to the rhythm. He pulls down a CD. “Want to hear something I wrote? Since you
like the Gatsbys so much. This is even better.”
He puts the CD into a small stereo and presses play. As a guitar riff begins, he sits on the edge of the bed and motions for me to sit next to him, which I do. He’s right, this music is even better than the Pretty Good Gatsbys. It gives me that same feeling that I had before entering the room, only magnified. My eyes unfocus and I feel like I’m daydreaming. Alex must be as blissed out as I am, because neither of us hears the door open or registers another presence in the room until the man jovially announces himself with, “Well done, writer! Alex, it’s good to see you again.”
I turn toward the voice and again there is a bright light that fills the doorway and the elongated silhouette. It’s daytime and we are inside. Whatever is generating the light, it isn’t headlights.My eyes burn with the brightness, and I turn away, looking again at Alex.
Whether it started during the music or once he saw the man I don’t know, but tears stream down Alex’s cheeks, leaving shimmering paths in the week’s worth of dirt that has accumulated while he recorded song after song.
“Well, that’s unbecoming,” the man says. “Get it together. You knew I’d find you eventually.”
The man enters the room more fully. The light disappears and again he is a regular, unassuming man in a tieless suit. Except for one thing. His right hand and fingers are the green shade of an algae-clogged pond, and the fingers stretch and taper into pin-like claws. In his human left hand, he holds a metal case like a person would use to store a microphone.
Not bothering to wipe away the tears, Alex lifts his head and asks, “What took you so long?”
The man runs his grotesque hand over the row of CDs. He puts down the metal case, strides to the guitar, picks it up, and strums a C major chord. “I’m a very busy man. You’re not the only person I’ve worked with, and you’re not the only one to try and get out of his obligation either.”He shakes his head. “You people, why do you always think the rules won’t apply to you?”Turning to face me, he asks, “Writer, what do you think? Should I just let it slide? Let him renege on his deal? It’s been so long, should we just say the statute of limitations has run out and
call it a day?”
I can’t answer.
“No,” he muses, “I don’t think that would be fair. It wouldn’t be fair to me, and it wouldn’t be
fair to all the people who were deprived of my help because Alex decided he needed to hoard it. No, I think Alex needs to pay what he owes. With interest.”
I expect Alex to run, to fight back, to do something, but he just stares as the man puts his green hand on top of Alex’s head. He replaces the guitar in its stand, then tilts Alex’s face upward so he is looking directly into his eyes. “This is just the way it is,” he says as he leans down and kisses Alex on the forehead. Then he takes the index finger of his right hand and traces around the circumference of Alex’s head, just above the ears.
Gingerly, he lifts the top of Alex’s head off, exposing his brain. He holds the piece of skull and scalp in his left hand while he plunges his right into Alex’s brain, fishing around like he is
looking for loose change in the bottom of a purse. He stops suddenly and pulls his hand from Alex’s head, his fingers cradling a thick gray lump of brain matter. Still holding Alex’s head, he
taps the metal case with his foot.
“Hey, writer. Open that for me, will you?”
It is like I am watching someone else do it, but I bend down and flip the case open. The man
places the piece of brain inside it, and closes the case. Then he replaces the top of Alex’s head,
uses his finger to trace around it again, and finally wipes some goo from his sharp green fingers onto Alex’s shirt. While he does all this, Alex sits frozen, his face expressionless, his eyes glazed. A single drop of blood beads on his temple and slides down his face.
The man hands Alex the guitar, which he stares at as if he’s never seen one before. He lets it fall
to the floor with a clang. The man walks to the door. He is several steps out before he turns back. “Thanks, writer,” he says, “I owe you one.”
He’s gone before I can ask him who he really is. But I find that I don’t much mind. There are some questions that you don’t really want answered.
I leave before Kim comes home, shutting the door to Alex’s room behind me, though he doesn’t
seem to register anything going on around him. I take a CD as a memento, but each time I listen it loses a little of its magic until soon it may as well be some high-schooler practicing scales. I turn in my story and see it get shredded by my editor’s red pen. I admit that it does read more like fiction than a magazine article, but I assure him that I reported everything exactly as it happened. He still refuses to publish it.
About a month after finding Alex, I receive a letter at the magazine office. It is from Celso, inviting me to see his new band play their debut show at Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. If I like the Pretty Good Gatsbys, I’ll love this new band, he says. He’s never felt so inspired.
BIO: Timothy Mudie is from Worcester, Massachusetts, but now lives outside of Boston, where he works as an editor at a general interest publishing house. His fiction has previously been featured in Perihelion SF, Abyss & Apex, Electric Spec, The Colored Lens, The Worcester Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), and several other magazines and anthologies.